The sound of the car door slamming shut jolted Sam awake. She blinked against the unexpected glare of sunlight until her eyes adjusted enough to see an advertisement for Fishlake National Forest on a dilapidated sign.
"Well, Sleeping Beauty, nice to see you join the party." Vala, whose return to the car had woken Sam, held out a bottle of water and the prescription bottle of Sam's painkillers.
Sam struggled to sit up, the pull of her skin around her wound making her hiss. She took the bottle of water and let Vala open the medication and tip the pills into her hand. "Do I dare ask where we are?"
"One of your states. I think it starts with a 'U'."
Sam choked down the mouthful of water she'd taken to chase the pills, which now felt like they were lodged in her throat. "We're in Utah? Why are we in Utah?"
"Because the map said this was the shortest route."
Sam sagged back into her seat. "Do I even want to know where we're going? You know, since when we got in the car, I was under the impression I was letting you drive me to the grocery store across town."
"That was your plan." Vala started the car, smoothly putting it into gear and backing out of the parking spot in front of the gas station. She'd gotten her driver's license only a week before, but had badgered Sam into teaching her the mechanics of "your inefficient combustion contraption" months ago. "I had a better one."
"Please. While charming at points, Utah has nothing on Las Vegas." At a red light, Vala reached out and tipped Sam's chin up. "You look pale."
That was because Sam felt like crap. The painkillers made her sleepy and slow, and she avoided them as much as she could, but today had been bad and already exhausted from too little sleep, she'd swallowed them down before they left for the store and dozed off even before Vala had pulled out of the driveway. Forty year old bodies didn't bounce back from major trauma with quite so much verve as she had even a few years before.
Still, she hadn't expected she'd sleep right through a state line. "Being kidnapped doesn't agree with me."
Vala's grin didn't agree with that assessment. "It will once you are settled in a lounge chair by the side of the pool, with a delicious drink in your hand and the whole of Las Vegas to explore."
"Oh God. Just tell me it's not the Luxor."
Vala grinned. "While tempting, if only for the amusement value, no. I made us reservations at the Bellagio."
"And whose credit card did you 'borrow' for this excursion?"
Vala huffed. Digging one-handed through a giant canvas tote bag tucked in next to her seat, she pulled out a wallet, which she handed to Sam. Inside: Vala's new license and a platinum Mastercard with Vala's name on it, and a Common Access Card, complete with Vala's irreverent grin in the photo. Huh. "Teal'c told me I should demand equitable compensation for my efforts," Vala said, "So I am now officially what you call a civilian contractor. And since your military won't let me leave the mountain, I have no expenses, and Muscles has been quite helpful in building an investment portfolio. So you may rest your overactive conscience - no thievery or illegal shenanigans of any kind are involved in this adventure."
It was looking easier and easier to just give in, but Sam rallied one last salvo. "I didn't bring anything for a long trip."
"I packed your bag while you were in the shower. It's in the trunk." Vala patted Sam on the knee. "It will be fabulous. Trust me."
Left with no other choice, Sam relaxed back into her seat and closed her eyes as Vala pulled on to the highway entrance ramp and picked up speed.
Sam woke to a delighted squeal of, "Sin City, here we are!"
She caught herself before stretching too far, but still had to bite back a gasp of pain. The bandages were bulky under her shirt and the waistband of the loosely-tied drawstring pajama pants she'd dressed in for the planned trip to the grocery store. She pressed her fingers against them, pushing in, gritting her teeth against the rising ache and stomach-churning flare of pain.
"The bag on the floor." Vala glanced at Sam over the top of her sunglasses before cutting across two lanes of traffic. "Open it."
Sam had to shrug out of the shoulder strap of her seatbelt, and drag it up with her foot, but Sam managed to grab the bag without that horrible sensation of tweaked stitches. She dug into it, and found her pain meds and a bottle of water right near the top.
"They are significantly more effective if you actually put them in your mouth." Vala's remark startled Sam out of her daze. Biting back a grunt of pain, Sam swallowed them down and slumped back into the seat, picking at the label on the water bottle. The towering skyline of the Las Vegas Strip loomed ahead, smudged by heat haze. It was a little surreal how something so immense looked so unrealistic, like a model-train town of wonders, tilt-shift unreal.
"You probably wouldn't be in so much pain if you actually listened to Dr. Lam and rested, you know."
Sam squinted one eye open. "Says the woman who kidnapped me and took me to Vegas."
"Details." Vala dismissed the accusation with a flick of her fingers. "You needed a break. I needed a break. This was... efficient."
That startled a laugh out of Sam, which pulled at her stitches and made her swear, which set Vala to clucking with concern. Up ahead, the classic Las Vegas sign flared brightly then disappeared in a wash of blinding light against the first edge of sunset.
Sam argued against valet parking, but was immediately grateful for it when Vala helped her out of the car, because even with the recent dose of pain meds, the fifteen feet to the doors suddenly looked like a million miles, and she found herself leaning heavily on Vala's shoulder through the check-in process and long trek to the room. Where she sagged onto the nearest bed and fell asleep to the quiet murmur of Vala saying something to the bellhop.
Sam woke with a start, her side and back cramping and burning. She struggled out from under the covers she didn't remember getting under, and saw a glass of water and her pain meds on the bedside table. She gulped down a dose and half the water before collapsing back on the bed, gritting her teeth until the throbbing subsided down to uncomfortable. She gingerly sat up, blew out the breath she'd been holding and slid off the bed.
The room was dim, lit only by one of the bedside lamps. The window looking out over the strip was a vivid smear of color framed by the deep blue of fast-fading twilight. She hadn't been asleep long, then, an hour at most.
The room was dim, only one bedside lamp on, but it was enough light to see that Vala certainly hadn't skimped on their accommodations. And now that the pain wasn't the only thing hogging her attention, compared to the opulent surroundings, she felt grimy and stinky.
Her bag sat prominently on the chair closest to the bed she'd slept in, a smaller bag full of first aid gear next to it. She made it into the shower before she started to flag again, eventually just slouching to the floor of the gorgeous tile, letting the hot water sluice over her until her shoulder and her back started to soften from the sharp tension that never really seemed to go away anymore.
Sam pulled the now-soggy bandage free, probing the puckered, inflamed skin and the threads of her stitches with shaking fingers. One more scar to add to her collection, one more too-close brush to add to her count. They tended to crowd her thoughts more these days, all those near-misses. And Daniel gone again, Teal'c all but lost, his heart, rightly, with the Jaffa. Jack, in Washington, only paltry miles apart in reality but across a gulf that felt like the stretch of the galaxy.
She hated it, that she always felt like the one left behind, and hated that she even felt that way at all, a selfish shame that rose and burned like bile in her throat.
"Are you alive in there?" The shower door slid open and Vala poked her head in. "If you drown in the shower Mitchell will never let me live it down."
Sam just stared up at her, which Vala took as a sign to continue her diatribe. "He told me I would be a terrible caretaker. Can you believe that?" She reached in and turned off the water. Sam thought about protesting, but it had started to cool, and she started to shiver, goosebumps prickling uncomfortably over her skin. She let Vala pull her up, because she wasn't sure she'd be able to on her own, and accepted the soft, ridiculously fluffy towel Vala pushed into her hands.
"I am perfectly capable of being an excellent caretaker when properly motivated," Vala said as she sailed out of the bathroom, to return moments later with the first aid kit, one of Sam's favorite, well-worn Air Force Academy t-shirts, and some yoga pants.
"Sit," Vala gently shoved Sam toward the ridiculous chaise lounge in the corner of the bathroom, and Sam did, shifting the towel over her shoulders like a cape. Val crouched at her side and quickly changed the bandage, deft and sure and far more gentle then Sam would have expected. But it was still almost more than Sam could bear, especially the concern in Vala's eyes.
"Room service tonight, I think," Vala said, leaving Sam to get dressed. Sam did, slowly, and dragged herself back into the room just as Vala hung up the phone. She crawled onto the bed she'd slept in and closed her eyes.
"No sleeping until after dinner, Colonel darling." The bed bounced, and she cracked open one eye to find Vala's face inches from hers. "Come on, we'll have a picnic, right here."
Vala did let her doze until the bellhop appeared with a cart filled with dishes, and Vala shooed her up to the head of the bed and laid a towel across the bedspread before laying out the food and handing her another dose of pain meds. Vala sat at the foot of the bed
Sam swallowed them down and picked at her food under Vala's watchful gaze before easing back against the pillows. The last thing that she was aware of was Vala tucking her in.
When Sam woke again, the glittering lights of the Strip had been replaced by the blinding desert sun. The treated windows cut the worst of the glare, but the room was still very bright, giving Sam more details of the room: gorgeous fabrics for the bedspreads, not the chintzy polyester stuff Sam was used to. Deep, plush pile carpet, art that looked like actual art, not generic reprints that looked the same as every other painting in every hotel room she'd ever stayed in.
The furniture too, was gorgeous and ornate. The chair closest to her bed looked like an actual antique, not a
reproduction, and today her swimsuit was draped across the back of it, and a pair of ridicuously bedazzled flipflops peeked out under the chair on the floor.
And there was no sign of Vala.
She managed another shower with far less issue, and to replace the bandage on her wound without disaster, and she even navigated getting dressed with minimal swearing and pain. The door flew open as Sam gingerly wormed her way into her shirt, and she yanked it down to see Vala peer out at her from under the brim of a floppy hat, oversize sunglasses perched on the tip of her nose. She leaned against the door, a brightly patterned, bordering on garish, sarong slung around her hips, and an actual teeny, yellow-polka-dot bikini top. It drew a smile, unbidden, from Sam, and Vala answered with a blinding grin. "That's not what I laid out for you."
"Nope," Sam said, and tugged her baggy, comfortable shirt into place.
Vala sighed. She pulled the hat off and dropped it on Sam's head. "Well, I guess it will have to do. Now let's go. We have a great deal of relaxing to do."
Sam rolled her eyes, but shoved her feet into the gaudy flip flops before following.
The trip through the hotel to the pool depleted Sam's reserves and she was grateful to collapse on the chaise lounge Vala led her to. The umbrella overhead cut the glare from the sun, but the heat of it was good, baking deep into her bones, slowly loosening the rigid knots in her limbs and her shoulders. She dozed, not so much out of exhaustion this time, but relaxation.
When she eventually woke she saw Vala stretched out next to her on a matching chaise, a tall drink with a neon green paper umbrella in one hand, and a bodice ripper romance novel in the other. The sun had shifted, the edge of it creeping to blaze under the umbrella. That and the loud growl of her stomach made Sam think she'd been out into the early afternoon.
Vala peered at her over the top of her sunglasses. "Time for lunch, apparently." She tucked her book on an oversize canvas tote and drained her drink before bouncing to her feet and reaching down to pull Sam to hers. "Let's go change."
"Why?" It came out petulant, disgruntled, and Sam yanked her hand out of Vala's. She wanted to stay here and go back to that pleasant, quiet lull, where her mind was quiet, and let the head dig deeper into her bones, let it burn out the aches, the shadows.
"Because I refuse to be seen in public with you unless you're appropriately attired."
Public in this case was Picasso, and properly attired was a pretty blue sundress that, according to Vala, matched Sam's eyes. She let Vala order for her, ignoring Vala's frustrated sigh when she pushed the menu away
"Why are you doing this?" Sam asked after their food had been placed in front of them.
Vala didn't answer immediately. She ate a few bites of her meal, obviously relishing it, and Sam realized she was making a point when Vala suddenly said, with no trace of levity in her tone, "Because someone needs to remind you to take the time to enjoy this world you spend so much time and blood trying to save."
Sam finished her meal in silence.
The next morning, back at the pool, Sam couldn't get back to that blissful state from the day before. Instead she was restless, edgy, and right now, pissed, because Vala wouldn't let her have her phone.
She didn't realize it was quite so obvious until Vala grabbed her ankle, stilling Sam's jiggling foot and said, the picture of exasperation, "Will you just relax already, Samantha Carter?"
"I can't!" Sam subsided as soon as she said it, loudly enough that heads turned to stare all around them. She burrowed back down into the lounge. "I'm sorry. I'm just not very good at..." She waved her hands around at their surroundings. "This."
"It is easier when you've been a god." Vala patted her knee and handed her a drink. "Fortunately, I am an expert at leisure, so you are in good hands. Now drink, lay back, and I don't want to hear another word out of you unless you're asking for another beverage or commenting on the fine attributes of our fellow vacationers. "
Sam wrinkled her nose and took a slug of her drink. It was delicious and sweet, and it was really good Sam had foregone her pain meds that morning, because it was also really full of vodka. Her head swam, and she flopped back against the lounge and did as she was told.
The next morning Vala hustled her out early, but this time in the direction of the parking garage instead of the pool.
"Should I even ask?" Sam said, staring wistfully back toward the pool area.
"Nope!" Vala hitched the canvas tote she carried up higher on her shoulder and grabbed Sam's hand. "You are learning."
Sam stuck out her tongue in reply, but didn't resist as Vala tugged her along. She was loathe to admit it, but the enforced rest was working; she still hurt, but the sharp pinching pain in her side had dulled, and she no longer felt the exhaustion that had dragged at her like a riptide, pulling her down into restless, useless sleep.
Vala drove them down the Strip, apparently in no hurry; she paced the slow traffic, content to pepper Sam with ridiculous trivia about the landmarks they passed. It was so much like Daniel that it was all Sam could do not to demand that she stop it, just stop it please.
Instead she squeezed her eyes shut and recited primes in her head, the comfortable, predicable progression drowning out Vala's voice, and all the fears and worry and hurt that suddenly welled in Sam's chest like a new, tearing wound.
Eventually they left the city, and further on they escaped the last of the sprawling suburbs and the scrub and sand opened up ahead, the mountains smudging the horizon; it felt like they were leaving the world behind. Sam had never really been one for nature, but she found that the stark landscape of the desert soothed her,
Vala took them into the foothills, though Red Rock Canyon and up into the Spring Mountains. An hour or so in she pulled off into a lookout, and chivvied Sam out of the car. They ended up sitting on top of the weathered picnic table, eating the little picnic lunch Vala had produced from her tote.
"Do you ever think about just walking away?" Vala said after almost a half an hour of silence.
Sam stole a look at her - she was gazing off into the distance. "Only about once a week," Sam said, with a weak attempt at humor.
"Why don't you? Walk away. No one could ever claim you have not done enough for this planet." Vala swung around to stare Sam down. "And do not attempt any of your trite duty and honor talk."
So Sam didn't. It wasn't like it was something she'd never addressed before. Just never aloud. "The curse of knowing what's out there. I just... I don't see how I could ever go back, could ever just go about my life, not when I know what's at stake, what's waiting. At least this way, I'll know when the end is coming, as much as I can. I'll have a chance to do something, even if it doesn't work. If I left, I'd just spend all my time looking over my shoulder, waiting. That's not living. That's just... like catching up to already being dead."
The answer seemed to mollify Vala. Sam finished her sandwich before taking her turn. "Why don't you? This isn't even your world. Why do you keep doing this?"
For a moment it was all gone: the levity, the charm, the vibrancy that blazed in Vala all the time. For that moment the weight of her dark and terrible godhood haunted her eyes, trembled through her frame, and Sam started to reached out to her when it to was gone, and Vala grinned, tossing her hair.
"I'd be so terribly bored without all of you."
The next morning, when Vala dragged her back down to the pool, Sam wore her swim suit and the ridiculous flip flops. Vala's smile when Sam came out of the bathroom was incandescent, and Sam thought the one she gave in return was much lighter and brighter than anything she'd managed lately.
They laid on their matching lounges, and Sam stretched, pleased to feel how dull the pain was now. "So, how long are we staying?"
"As long as we need to."
"And who decides that?"
The trill of Vala's phone interrupted, and after a moment's heated, whispered conversation, Vala handed it to Sam. "Please tell him that I did not kidnap you."
It was Cam's number on the screen. "You technically did," she whispered sotto voce before tucking the phone between her ear and shoulder. "All is well in Sin City, Cam."
"You sure?" There was concern in his drawl, but it was blunted by barely contained laughter. "Got a little Stockholm Syndrome going on?"
"No, I have a very tasty, very alcoholic drink in my hand."
The laugh bubbled free. "I see she's having an effect on your priorities."
"No, having lost track of how many times I've almost died has had an effect on my priorities."
That came out sharper than she'd intended, and it took Cam a long time to reply. "Hey, really, you okay, Sam? T and I can be there by tonight."
Sam glanced over at Vala, draped languorously over her lounge chair, back into her terrible-looking romance novel. "Thanks, Cam. But I think we've got this." She hung up and leaned over to drop the phone in Vala's tote. "So what's the plan for tomorrow?"
Vala rolled to her side and pulled her sunglasses down her nose. "I think it's time for you to start pulling your weight around here, Colonel dear. You decide."
"Even if I decide we're going to go to Hoover Dam and take the tour?"
Vala rolled her eyes before pushing her sunglasses back up and pointedly returning her attention to her book. "I'll suppose I'll survive."
"Yeah," Sam said softly, contentedly. "I suppose we will."